The Tea Act

On May 10, 1773, the British ministry piloted through Parliament the Tea Act, intended to rescue from imminent collapse the East India Company and its many investors. The legislation exempted the company from the import duties on tea brought into England from India and then re-exported to America. To British imperial policy makers, as well as British America's friends in Parliament, the measure seemed neither novel nor politically dangerous. To help the East India Company dispose of its massive surplus of tea, then moldering in warehouses throughout London, the bill substantially lowered the commodity's price while retaining a small duty. It also gave the East India Company the authority to choose the colonial merchants to whom it would consign the tea. With one ostensibly innocuous bill, British ministers believed that they could both save the Company and increase revenues to the Treasury through the reduced duty and the increased consumption by colonials of a much more affordable product, all while subtly reinforcing Parliament's right to lay external taxes on the colonies.

No one in London foresaw, however, the enemies the Tea Act would quickly create. British policy makers failed to appreciate the degree to which radical American politicians would exploit the bill as a thinly veiled attempt to secure colonial submission to the blanket principle of parliamentary taxation. They also failed to recognize the political hazard created by a measure that could drive out of business those merchants who made fortunes by smuggling cheap Dutch tea into the colonies. In ports up and down the western Atlantic coast, radical politicians and angry merchants found common cause in opposing the Tea Act.

In the summer of 1773, the East India Company put the plan into action when it dispatched shipments of tea to four major colonial ports-Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. When the ships reached New York and Philadelphia, they were turned back by colonials who refused to allow the tea to land. In Charleston the tea was unloaded, but the tax was not paid. In Boston, however, Massachusetts Bay's governor, Thomas Hutchinson, believed that the landing of the tea was a necessary demonstration of parliamentary sovereignty. Boston's radicals, however, would not allow the tea off the company's three ships. On the evening of December 16, a group disguised as Mohawk boarded the ships and dumped into Boston harbor 352 casks of tea worth £10,000 in an act that became known as the Boston Tea Party.

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